Do claims that Crimean Tatars are worse off under Putin than Stalin stand up? An expert examines the evidence
Activist Sair Smedlja stands in front of the Crimean Tatar self-governing assembly (the Mejlis) which was closed down when the Russians occupied Crimea. DPA/Alamy
24 November 2023
Writing in the Conversation, Dr Gerald Hughes from the Department of International Politics discusses whether Crimean Tatars are worse off under Putin than Stalin.
Stalin used claims, later disputed by most historians, that the Tatars had sided with the Nazis during the second world war to justify the exile and to wipe out signs of Tatar heritage in Crimea, giving villages Russian names and handing Tatar homes to Soviet settlers. Even Tatar men fighting for the Red Army were sent to labour camps.
The Tatars, who comprised most of the population of the peninsula for centuries, were only allowed to return en masse to Crimea – which had been transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 – under the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989. Around 260,000 people returned. Many others died in exile.
Return of repression
After President Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, public references to the Stalinist deportations of the Tatars were banned, the Crimean Tatar self-governing assembly (the Mejlis) was dissolved, and a programme of systematic repression began. To make it clear what the status of the Tatars was, Sergei Aksyonov, prime minister of occupied Crimea, said that any Tatars who were unhappy with Russian rule in Crimea should “leave if they don’t like it”.
Over the years, the veteran leader of the indigenous Tatar population of occupied Crimea, Mustafa Dzhemilev, has regularly compared the plight of the Crimean Tatars under Putin to the atrocities suffered under Stalin.
In November 2023, Dzhemilev said: “I don’t know a single Crimean Tatar who hasn’t been beaten and tortured after arrest.” This was part of an effort to push the Crimean Tatars out, he said, because they would never accept occupation. “This is a genuine case of ethnic cleansing. There is simply no future for the Crimean Tatars as part of Russia.”
In 2018 he observed that:
If you look at an overall picture, in my mind things are worse now than during the Soviet times in relation to human rights. Things are more lawless now, and the torture is becoming more intense. During the Soviet Union, the authorities were afraid of bad publicity. But now they’ve got nothing to lose.
Two years earlier, in 2016, he said that the Crimean Tatars “are worse off than we were in the USSR. The situation is catastrophic”. He added: “We fought for 50 years to return from the exile in which Stalin condemned us and now we have to fight again.”
What has Putin done?
It is clear that Dzhemilev, who spent years in exile and imprisoned before being allowed to return to Crimea, can point to a wealth of evidence relating to Putin’s repression of his people, from closing down the Mejlis to arresting Tatars on trumped up charges.
In Russian-occupied Crimea, Tatars no longer have the right to commemorate their long exile from their homeland. There are random house searches, and reports of disappearances and killings. Tatar people who protest or speak out against Russian occupation are prosecuted and fined.
Between 2017 and 2022, more than 7,000 human rights violations were documented in occupied Crimea by the non-governmental organisation the Crimean Tatar Resource Center (CTRC), 5,015 of these were against members of the Crimean Tatar people. The CTRC tracked human rights violations in Crimea during the first quarter of 2023.
According to that organisation, Russian security forces conducted 21 searches, 61 detentions, and 64 interrogations, interviews, and conversations during that period. The total number of arrests for the first quarter of 2023 was 83. Most of these were Crimean Tatars, it said.
Thousands of Tatars have fled from the region since Russian occupation. As was the case in the 1940s, houses left behind have been handed to those who are loyal to Moscow.
According to rights organisation Human Rights Watch, there are continued attempts to portray Tatars as extremists and terrorists, evoking comparisons with Stalin’s condemnation of the Tatars as Nazis. Since Russia’s occupation of 2014, there have been renewed attempts to wipe out signs of Crimean Tatar identity and history, another striking parallel with what Stalin attempted to do from 1944 onwards.
From early on in the Ukraine war, Putin has pursued a strategy of mobilising men from ethnic minorities and troublesome areas of Russia for frontline service. Hundreds of Crimean Tatars were sent draft notices, despite not wanting to to fight for Russia. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky argued this was a deliberate move to wipe out the Crimean Tatars, as well as those who opposed Russian occupation, and the war.
Putin often uses his version of history to tell a story that Ukraine (and Crimea) are part of Russia, rather than an independent state. This justifies both the occupation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine.
Putin, in an attempt to put Ukraine on the “wrong side” of the second world war, frequently mentions ultranationalist Ukrainian Stepan Bandera (1909-59), and his links to the Nazis. As noted above, Stalin had justified sending Tatars into exile by claiming they had sided with the Nazis.
Despite his purges, Stalin is still a popular figure in Russia, not least due to widespread ignorance of – or indifference to – his crimes. In 2008, Stalin came third in a TV poll to find the “greatest Russian”. The poll saw some 50 million people vote by phone, website or via text messages.
Soon after he became president in 2000, it was clear that Putin intended to embrace elements of Stalin’s legacy. He replaced the national anthem with an adaptation of the USSR’s 1944 version and termed Stalin an “efficient manager”. Putin’s actions towards Crimea have undoubtedly been driven by his aim to rebuild a greater Russia, to include parts if not all of the former Soviet Union, and to eliminate or marginalise those, including the Tatars, who stood in his way.
Putin’s repressive regime does not engage in the mass executions and deportations that characterised the Stalinist era. And Putin’s treatment of the Crimean Tatars may not be worse than Stalin’s, but his goals coincide inasmuch as he wants to eradicate the autonomy of the Crimean Tatars and the independence of Ukraine.
It is the similarities between Putin and Stalin that cause Dzhemilev, banned from Crimea until 2034 by Moscow, to believe that the future of his people is in peril. His priority now is to prevent another national catastrophe for the Crimean Tatars.